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The Weekend Shift

The Intimate Times of Life

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Debra Nicholls heading off to her weekend job.
(Courtesy Debra Nicholls)
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Many people work weekend jobs. Even more people work jobs they carry with them on their days off. Debra Nicholls' weekend job not only stays with her all week, but changes how she experiences her life.

A year ago, Debra Nicholls quit her day job and started home-schooling her son Conner. His first weeks of kindergarten hadn't gone well. He was acting out, and coming home exhausted. Now Debra spends her weekdays sitting at the kitchen table, teaching her son to read.

To make ends meet, Debra works weekends as a hospice nurse, caring for the terminally ill. It's a big contrast. She spends her weekdays with a rambunctious young child, and on weekends she cares for the dying.

"I get to be involved in one of the most intimate times of life," Debra says. "I've actually been at bed sides that remind me of a birth experience. All the family gathers and they're coaching that person on. It's a very beautiful passage. It's the same passage, like birth. I feel it is a pretty sacred trust that we get to be there,"

The job of a hospice care nurse is to make life better for dying patients. It's not about staving off death or hastening it on. Debra's there to make the last months comfortable; medically and emotionally.

On a recent Sunday, Debra's workday begins. She drives her big blue van toward an assisted living facility. John, a 91-year-old hospice patient, needs to have a leaking catheter replaced. The hospital wouldn't allow last names to be used.

John's lying in a medical bed in a large, stark room with his wife Hazel at his side. He has long limbs and piercing blue eyes. At age 26, when he married his wife, he must have been dashing. Now his eyelids droop with sickness and age. He isn't eating well, and hallucinations are clouding his vision. His wife brushes her hand across his forehead.

"He's very restless," Hazel says, worried. Debra nods with understanding, and turns to John.

"What scares you the most, John?" she asks.

"Well, not living," John replies.

Debra hears from patients all the time that they are scared of not living. It is her job to be reassuring.

"You know we're here to try to make this more of a peaceful process for you," Debra says.

"I know that," John answers.

Debra is a comforting presence, but John knew what was coming. He died a few days later, with his wife at his side.

"We get to witness couples that have been together for decades and their final moments together. It's very, very beautiful," Debra says. "You get to see what's really important in a relationship. Someone who is going to be there in the final moment. Someone who will take care of you through the less than pretty parts and still love you through all that."

John and Hazel had spent 65 years together. Part of Debra's job is to give support to couples; those still living together and those recently separated by death.

That same day, a hospice patient named Michelle passed away. She was only 50 years old. She'd been battling MS for over 20 years. Debra is dispatched to her home.

The little brown house is shrouded by trees. Stray cats eat free food on the rusted red porch. Inside, Michelle lies in her hospital bed with her eyes slightly open. Debra's there to help Michelle's husband Ross. He quit his job in 2000 to take care of his wife.

"So eight years," Debra says.

"She was permanently bedridden," Ross replies. "This is the way it's been. But like everything in life, it all comes to an end I guess."

His voice sounds steady when he speaks, but his eyes are full of tears as he remembers his wife.

"I've never seen a women fight something like she did," Ross says. "She spent years on that walker because she knew when she got in a chair she'd never get out. The pain it caused her."

Ross talks for more than an hour. Debra listens and commiserates. It's at these moments, even more than when she's providing medical care, that Debra feels her work is appreciated.

When she finally leaves the house, Debra wipes a tear from her eye as she walks away. It's not just a job to her. The weight of death stays with her all week, even when she is back teaching her son on Monday.

"By the end of the weekend, I am really excited to see my healthy son, and be grateful for his joy in living," Debra says. "Tomorrow something could happen. It gives me a little more patience in those moments that are trying. I'm really grateful that I have him in my life."

Debra's on intimate terms with something most of us avoid considering--death. But for her, knowing how life ends makes the beginning that much more alive.

  • Music Bridge:
    Artist: Fibreforms
    CD: Stone (room tone)
More stories from our The Weekend Shift series


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  • By Art Holder

    From Salt Lake City, UT, 07/28/2008

    I was moved by Ms Nichols comments on her experiences as a hospice nurse. Her describing death as an event as moving and as important as birth struck me as particularly apt. I was fortunate to be with both my parents as they died. Although difficult, it helped me to deal with their loss. Thanks for the story.

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